James Christie: Last of the Rare Book Cataloguers

Only a few more books to go and then I too shall pass. It’s been a long journey to a small room in the dark tower of a Victorian hunting lodge. My last library job turning out to be voluntarily cataloguing old and rare books not ten miles from the room where I first learnt my trade nearly twenty-five years ago.

Aspergers make natural cataloguers but there are few of us left today (cataloguers, that is, not Aspergers – most work is now done by a few agencies) and while I’ve come against all odds to a fairly dignified end, I leave a failing trade in utter disarray. According to this Independent article, the total number of libraries in Britain has decreased from 4,622 to 4,145 (and counting) in a decade, 324 have closed just since 2011 and about 400 (10% of the remainder) are run by volunteers. William Sieghart’s 2014 independent library report for England also confirms that “the public library service in England is at a crossroads” and “there have already been far too many library reviews in recent years which have come to nothing.”                                                                                                           

And given my quarter century of experience with a library “profession” obsessed with jargon and qualifications, bereft of leadership and bare of actual jobs, I simply do not believe the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) or the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) are able, as Sieghart recommends, “to encourage and develop the library workforce and especially new recruits and graduates.”

I really don’t have much time for CILIP, librarianship’s “professional” body, whose only response to being at a crossroads was to consult each other about changing their name.

Talk about rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, and then they didn’t even do it!
Not that my library life started so badly in the first place, though. My postgraduate course in librarianship was a pointless exercise in regurgitating jargon, but my first job the extraordinary experience of cataloguing antiquarian monographs sometimes worth millions of pounds, which is why I’ll leave the descriptions scant and location blank. Not only that, after a dodgy start and working unsupervised, I taught myself the art of cataloguing using Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (AACR2) and put my records manually onto index cards. I may be one of the last people left to have done so. A colleague at the Mitchell Library created his last manual record in 1975, I did mine in 1995.

 I found that Aspergers have a natural firewall between their everyday personalities and the manic nutter subroutine needed effectively to catalogue. If I ever joke to you that “cataloguers make accountants look like hippies,” I’m not actually joking… Three years living, breathing and stacking books which created modern society in a room like a time capsule from Victorian days where the ghost of Sir Walter Scott walked softly and the view hadn’t changed since 1922.

Time and Again, a book by Jack Finney, defined the delicious possibility that:
“…it may be possible this summer, just barely possible … for a man to walk out of that unchanged apartment and into that other summer.”

The idea being that, unlike the concept of mechanical time travel defined by H. G. Wells and the TARDIS, psychological time travel might just be possible, that (as mentioned in Dear Miss Landau) if you spent enough time in a room from the past, you might find:
“…doors which let the lucky traveller, still young, walk out into a different summer and another day.”

I came as close to seeing that different summer and other day as any man living. I also learned my trade hard and well. I was a graduate, fascinated with rare books and cataloguing, looking forward to telling my incredible story, hoping to be encouraged and developed.

And then I tried to get another job.

It was a long and disillusioning story of burgeoning pseudoscience and frustrating interviews, my hard-won skills withering on the vine, my interest in rare books dying for lack of development and my patience shortening like a lit and burning fuse.
Some men must endure Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation.” I decided not to be one of them. After years of frustration I took a leaf out of a book entitled The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and in 2006 calmly, satirically and career-suicidally wrote out how I felt; reasoning that I was pretty much doomed anyway and at least by doing this I’d avoid ulcers of frustration.

I called it The Gordian Knot:

“It’s not often I start to write an article intending to crucify myself, commit professional suicide and probably get myself beaten up by a rampaging mob of respectable librarians into the bargain, but I can’t even preface the following heresies with the caveat ‘I’m retiring this year, so it is all academic for me.’  I’ll only be forty-two years old come September but I’m now so disillusioned with the profession that I would rather fall on my sword than stagger through interviews mumbling tripe I don’t believe about metadata, revalidation, ICT, twelve-digit Dewey numbers and all the other pseudo-professional jargon we have invented.”

 It might sound funny now. It wasn’t funny then. Vampires, Hollywood and published authorship were still parts of a future I could not know; and I truly believed I had taken a hacksaw to my precarious hopes of work by cheerfully insulting my fellow librarians instead of solemnly networking with them.

However, I found a friend in library campaigner Tim Coates (former managing director of Waterstones and W. H. Smith, mentioned in the earlier Independent article link) who put my five-page death wish onto his Good Library Blog. A couple of senior library figures commented appreciatively about The Gordian Knot on the quiet and, feeling profoundly rebellious, I went on to slag off librarianship on a fortnightly basis in Tim’s blog for the next five years.

Oh God, it was fun!

Favourite quotes include:

“Senior library management should be shot out of the USS Enterprise’s shuttlebay doors in their underpants”


“Current Culture Minister Ed Vaizey is as suitable for his job as Jabba the Hut would be to run the Triathlon.”

It was easy to satirize people who used words and phrases like “social cohesion issues, animate the space, automated tagging based on behavioural pathways, user-endorsed ratings system and the negotiation of a reference question as opposed to the communication theory of reference interview,” and, believe me, I did. An email of mine laughing at their dismal, self-defeating, pseudo-academic drivel won letter of the month in the library journal Update in May 2008.

Nor was I the only non-conformist out there.

In the December 2012 issue of Post-Lib, Francis Hendrix said:
“Of course there are library reviews and reviews and more reviews, how many I have lost count. In 2003, whilst I was still at the LASER Foundation, we commissioned Charlie Leadbeater to undertake a review entitled ‘Overdue.’ It is still the best in-depth look at the sector. He finished by stating that ‘Unless decisive action is taken now, the decline of our public libraries could become terminal by the end of the decade. If that happened Britain could be writing off vital social and cultural assets. Public libraries used to be central to the life of many communities but they are increasingly marginalised.’ The report recommended a 10 year strategy for transforming libraries. Well the 10 years is now almost up, opportunities have been lost, all-encompassing government support has gone out of the window and with it one of the mainstays of a democratic and civilised society.”
Well, now it’s 2015 and British libraries are apparently on the brink of absolute disaster. There are certainly scarcely any jobs for either neuro-typical or Asperger, and very little future for librarians in general, I’d say.

But my satirical blogs were read by Amanda Field, founder of Chaplin Books, and this led to the achievement of my life’s ambition: published authorship.

Wiston Lodge

I also thought my involvement in librarianship had ended in 2011 when the NHS failed, laughably and amateurishly, to provide me with the post of part-time library assistant they’d offered me in writing although I’d successfully completed their twelve week work trial. But in 2014 I became involved with Wiston Lodge in South Lanarkshire  and it just so happened they had a roomful of old and rare books which needed weeding and cataloguing.

Funny how what goes around comes around…

It’s been a fine and satisfying time demonstrating how my dying art’s done. It’s been good to show I still know my AACR2 from my elbow. It’s a pity my art will pretty much pass away with me, but I can’t respect a “profession” so unsupportive, indecisive and inefficient hit opens a £189 million library in Birmingham in 2013 and virtually shuts it the following year.

Place, publisher, date and page. No maps or ports. to show.

Last book (poems by Fiona Macleod) logged by the last of the rare book cataloguers.

Now it’s time to go.

I take the steep stair down to the small office, and leave the key above the door.

James Christie: To the Future, Back…
James Christie: Led by the Lamb to the Slaughter

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Avatar of PatByrne Publisher of Pat's Guide to Glasgow West End; the community guide to the West End of Glasgow. Fiction and non-fiction writer.

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